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By Steve Kelman

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Of bureaucracy and Betty Crocker

A theme always on the agenda in one of the classes I teach in executive education programs here at Harvard is the virtues and drawbacks of rules as a way to design organizations. We walk through the good, the bad, the ugly, and the management challenges of managing in a rules-bound organizational environment.
 
One point that always comes out in discussion is that rules and procedures can help employees figure out how to do their jobs well by reflecting knowledge and lessons learned from experience or from research. If we know that doing A, B, and C will almost always produce a good result, why keep A, B, and C secret from employees?
 
I illustrate this by showing a visual of a box of Betty Crocker brownie mix. Betty Crocker doesn’t just give you the mix and leave it to you to figure out how to make good brownies. Based on research at the Betty Crocker kitchens, they tell you to add an egg, a half cup of water, preheat the oven to 375, and bake for 8 minutes. Why should we ask people to re-invent the wheel?

The example is meant to start a discussion, and this year it started a very interesting one among a group of Senior Executive Service civil servants, general officers, and about half the class from outside the US. The instructions on the mix are a good starting point, one participant (who is, by coincidence, a senior contracting official in a major contracting organization) noted. But a good cook will use this as a baseline, a minimal level of quality, and adapt based on their own initiative to improve the brownies from there – adding coconut or other flavorings, experimenting with softness or hardness levels, and so forth. Another participant noted that a good company may give several alternative recipes for different tastes, and allow the user to choose among them.
 
Needless to say, this conversation was not really about making brownies. The challenge for rule-bound government organizations is that, as the management professor Henry Mintzberg has noted, in a rule-bound organization, rules set up to establish a minimum standard of performance often come to be seen by employees as the only things they need to do to do their job – that nothing more is expected. This same official said the challenge for government managers is to encourage employees to use the rules as a base, but use their heads to figure out how they should be supplemented in particular cases. She noted that often she tries to upset people’s mindsets by asking “why are we doing this,” and not accepting “we’ve always done it this way” as an answer.
 
It is also useful to draw a distinction, as a number of participants did, between rules that set the outer boundaries of acceptable behavior – integrity, ethical, legal, or safety issues – versus those that are giving advice about how to do a job better.  In my view, the former need to be compulsory. An employee has no discretion to decide they would like to take a bribe. The latter generally should be guidance only, with a cultural expectation that they should be used when helpful, otherwise not necessarily.

Posted on Jul 27, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Fri, Jul 27, 2012 Alan

Isn’t there conflict between these two statements? (emphasis added):

“One point that always comes out in discussion is that rules and procedures can help employees figure out how to do their jobs well by reflecting knowledge and lessons learned from EXPERIENCE or from research.”

vs.

“She noted that often she tries to upset people’s mindsets by asking ‘why are we doing this,’ and not accepting ‘we’ve always done it this way’ as an answer.”

Procedures established as a result of a negative event are vulnerable to being overturned as memories fade. The negative event is typically not documented, memories fade, or the negative event took place so long ago that a new manager who comes along to “challenge” the procedure doesn’t have a healthy visceral aversion to the negative event.

The official may actually be challenging the corporate memory of her organization to remember the negative event. I know I’m channeling Edmund Burke, but sometimes some care should be taken before tampering with a complex system when you have limited information.

Occasionally, an “old-timer” (I am not one myself) will say something to the effect of “We tried that eight years ago and it was a disaster”. The old-timer’s views are usually dismissed as bureaucratic resistance and belly-aching. She may be falling into a trap that some managers can fall into- thinking she knows better than the collective wisdom of her predecessors and employees. This is a seductive and dangerous trap.

If the change is made, and is successful, she is an excellent manager and innovator. If it fails, then she probably fell into that trap. If there weren’t so many failures, I wouldn’t bring this up . . .

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